One of many big games just ahead

Banged-up Packers may be better prepared to play Cowboys in NFC title game in January, says PackerReport.com's Doug Ritchay

Let the hype begin.

Although Week 12 isn't finished in the NFL everybody who's somebody is pointing to Thursday, when the Packers and Cowboys get a chance to play their version of Super Bowl 41 ½.

New England and Indianapolis did earlier this season in the AFC, with the Patriots winning. It's hard not to look ahead to this game because of what's at stake – likely home-field advantage in the playoffs. And considering what the weather is in Dallas and Green Bay in January, this is significant.

Packers coach Mike McCarthy was asked Friday how he's going to handle the next week, because the national coverage of this game will be huge. This is the Packers and Cowboys, storybook franchises and clearly the class of the NFC.

"You need to stay focused on who we are, how we arrived here," McCarthy said. "But those are all elements that we need to deal with. We haven't played in a game that will receive this much media attention.

"I'm aware of that, and it's something we'll talk about. It's something we've already talked about as a staff as we move forward in our interaction with our players today and tomorrow on an individual basis.

"But that's all part of being in the National Football League. These are the opportunities you look for. These are the opportunities you're excited to be a part of, and we're excited about it."

Nobody predicted this in August. Some (not me) thought the Packers could make the playoffs, but nobody forecasted a 10-1 start.

Even Brett Favre, who's always optimistic, admitted after Thursday's win in Dallas he is surprised. He talked about the game with Dallas.

"I have no idea what's going to happen in Dallas," Favre said. "We win, they win, they blow us out, we blow them (out) ... who knows?

"But up to this point it's been pretty satisfying, and I think all our guys need to be patted on the back and be commended for what we've done. But then you put that aside and we go see what happens the next few games."

As hyped as this game is and will be, however, it doesn't mean the winner has a free ride to the Super Bowl. Many believe no matter who wins this game the teams will meet one more time to decide the NFC champion.

McCarthy downplayed the game in the big picture, which is expected.

"How much is riding on it? It's one of five (games remaining)," McCarthy said. "I don't think it would be smart to treat this as a playoff game where there's so much that rides on the outcome of this game. We plan on winning the football game.

"We'll do everything in our power from preparation to win this football game. But we're going to be smart with our football team, because there's a lot of football left to be played."

When McCarthy says smart he might be talking about how to deal with injuries, some which were notable in the Thanksgiving Day win at Detroit.

As of Friday, the Packers don't appear to be ready to play this type of game at full speed. At Detroit, the Packers suffered injuries to key players, including Charles Woodson and Colin Cole, who's out with a fractured arm. Woodson, who's needed against Tony Romo and his franchise-best 29 touchdown passes, has a bout with turf toe, or something similar to it.

Many are calling this the game of the year in the NFC. It is to this point, but every year the game of the year in the NFC is the NFC championship game.

The Packers could lose next week, but in late January be better prepared to beat Dallas. Nobody uses excuses, but the Packers are black and blue, which will impact their performance.

McCarthy said despite the team's condition now, after Thursday's game the team can get healthier.

"The benefit of this game is the four days off, or the 10-day period going into the Oakland game," said McCarthy, referring to the Packers' following game Dec. 9 against Oakland. "We'll have a chance to hopefully get our team back and get ready for the fourth quarter (of the season). "But this is the last game of the third quarter. It's how we view this game. It will receive a lot of attention, but our preparation will not change."

Nor should it. The Packers got to 10-1 by riding Favre's arm and relying on a good defense. Don't change a thing, but hope for some good luck the rest of the way, because win or lose, the only thing that can prevent the Packers from reaching the NFC title game is health.

Maybe this battle with injuries now is better than having to do deal with it later. Thursday's game is important, but the Packers plan on playing more important games after December. That's when the hype will really be worth talking about.

Doug Ritchay is a frequent contributor to PackerReport.com and Packer Report magazine. E-mail him at dritchay@sbcglobal.net.


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